Watchdog calls Berlusconi 'television bias' to account

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ITALY'S ombudsman on media fairness, Giuseppe Santaniello, yesterday sought to blow the whistle in a brawl over television bias in the current election campaign.

Politicians are battling on the nation's television screens, not least because the leading candidate on the right, the media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, owns three of Italy's six national channels and thus has a colossal advantage over his opponents.

While his channels are churning out commercials for his party, Forza Italia, his channel '4' news programmes, according to the left, are conducting blatant propaganda for him. His other channels are more restrained but a monitoring service hired by the left-wing l'Espresso found that they generally give him more, and more favourable coverage than other leaders.

'This state of affairs would be inconceivable in any civilised country like the United States or Britain,' said Claudio Ligas, spokesman for the Democratic Party of the Left, the former Communists. 'In one week Berlusconi has spent 10 times as much as our budget for the whole election campaign.'

At the same time, Mr Berlusconi has been accusing the state-owned RAI of being 'in the hands of the Communists' and 'conducting a campaign of personal aggression' against him. He is also refusing to take part in television debates unless they are held according to his wishes, with guaranteed time for each speaker and none of the usual rough-and-tumble which often ends with guests speaking at once.

In fact RAI, until recently the tool of the old political parties, is rapidly reforming and becoming the kind of public broadcasting service familiar in other European countries. It is patently not controlled by the former Communists, although observers accuse its third channel, traditionally the most left- wing, of anti-Berlusconi tones.

Claudio Dematte, RAI's new chairman, has accused Mr Berlus coni's channels of conducting

'a systematic campaign of denigration against the RAI which borders on unfair competition'.

But under Italy's electoral laws a fair rationing of television and radio time among the various parties only comes into force a month before the 27-28 March elections. Meanwhile, doubtless thanks at least partly to his slick propaganda, Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia has risen in the opinion polls from nowhere to be the biggest party, with around 25 per cent.

The speakers of the two houses of parliament have expressed alarm at the imbalance and President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, clearly concerned, has had talks with the media ombudsman. Mr Santaniello, flanked by the chairman of the parliamentary broadcasting committee, Luciano Radi, finally issued an appeal yesterday to television, radio and newspapers to apply the fairness rules immediately and scrupulously 'so as to guarantee all competing political parties equal treatment and opportunity'. There was no immediate reaction to

his appeal.